Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont, PA

The Platytera: More Spacious than the Heavens

Some of the American public has only a superficial familiarity with Orthodox iconography at best and, at worst, possesses a gross misunderstanding of this important aspect of our Holy Tradition. The chief contributor to the misinformation is the mass media and their poorly-researched work. The word "icon" is often used synonymously with the word "fresco". This is an early red-flag in any report that the journalist hasn't done his homework. These two words clearly speak of different cultures and processes, totally different frames of reference within which each was created. Many writers commonly refer to icons as Byzantine, religious or church "art." Again, this is a very simplistic view that betrays a total lack of knowledge of how icons are prepared and their meaning. Platytera: Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century This point is underscored by the fact many journalists say that icons had been "painted", rather than correctly referring to them as having been "written."

Orthodox Christians know that the subject matter of icons is, first, Christ and the Theotokos — who is commonly depicted with her son — followed by the Holy Apostles, Saints and Martyrs, and miracles and holy days depicted in the Holy Bible. Much of the populace in the early years of Christianity was illiterate. Icons, then, were a teaching tool because they told stories by illustrating significant people and events to converts to Christianity and followers of Christ. But, as we Orthodox are fond of saying, Orthodoxy has the "fullness of the faith." Far from being mere historical records, icons are rich in religious symbolism and they have a much deeper meaning than a simple likeness or photographic reproduction. The colors utilized, the way a body or its parts are positioned, or the manner in which a person's image is depicted all influence how an icon is interpreted. Thus, a complete understanding of iconography reveals that icons convey our Orthodox Christian doctrine and theology.

Perhaps few icons are better illustrations of this point than the Platytera. The arms of the Theotokos are outstretched, with her Son at her center, as if she is welcoming us to him in her embrace. In fact, the full name of this icon — Platytera ton ouranon — means "More spacious than the Heavens." Such a designation appears fitting when one considers that, within her womb, she contained the Creator of the universe. The Platytera is located in an Orthodox church's apse, or the recessed extension at the rear of the altar. It often begins on the wall and continues up onto the ceiling. This symbolism is captured by the Akathist hymn, which refers to the Theotokos as both a "Ladder, by which God descended" and a "Bridge, leading those from earth to Heaven." To read a more in-depth explanation of the Platytera, as well as an introduction to and the text of the Akathist Hymn, please visit the following links:

More Spacious than the Heavens from St. Ephraim Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Antonio, Texas
Embracing Love from Iconographer Nicholas N. Papas
The Akathist Hymn from

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